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At once beautiful, protective, seductive, and dangerous, the water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic. A rich array of arts surrounds her, as well as a host of other aquatic spirits–all honoring the essential, sacred nature of water. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to have “overseas” origins, and her depictions have been profoundly influenced by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints. She is not only sexy, jealous, and beguiling but also exists in the plural, as the mami watas and papi watas who comprise part of the vast and uncountable “school” of African water spirits.

Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas
Mami Wata is a complex symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances. She is at once a nurturing mother; sexy mama; provider of riches; healer of physical and spiritual ills; and embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. People are attracted to the seemingly endless possibilities she represents and, at the same time, frightened by her destructive potential. She inspires a vast array of emotions, attitudes, and actions among those who worship her, fear her, study her, and create works of art about her.

Often appearing with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish, Mami Wata straddles earth and water, culture and nature. She may also take the form of a snake charmer, sometimes in combination with her mermaid attributes and sometimes separate from them. She can exist in the form of indigenous African water spirits known as mami watas and papi watas or assume aspects of a Hindu deity or a Christian saint without sacrificing her identity.

This section of the exhibition presents a broad overview of some of the movements, images, and ideas that have played major roles in the arts for Mami Wata. These include African images celebrating ancient and indigenous water spirits, global examples that demonstrate the transcultural nature of Mami Wata, and contemporary ideological and theological controversies concerning good and evil.

Mami Wata and the innumerable mami and papi wata spirits have many faces, and their identities rarely remain constant. As conditions change, so do the attributes, personalities, and actions of these fascinating and enigmatic water spirits. When taken together, the case studies presented in this section reveal striking differences, as well as remarkable similarities, in the beliefs and expressive arts for Mami Wata and her cohorts in Africa.

As with the arts dedicated to her, the worship of Mami Wata as a specific spiritual entity is not a unified, homogenous phenomenon. Instead, it reveals an extremely diverse and fluid set of beliefs and practices that both reflect and guide social and religious worlds. There are many expressions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths, and this is perhaps even more true of the worship of Mami Wata and water spirits in Africa.

Sacred waters bathe the histories of African peoples–waters of life, departure, and return. Sometimes they appear as tears of deep sorrow, sometimes as soothing and cooling streams sustaining existence and hope. Water connects world with otherworld, life with afterlife. Among Africans dispersed across vast oceans, these waters are emblematic of the ultimate journey back home to Africa and all those distant yet living ancestors. In Haiti, it is the journey home to Guinee across the rippling boundary of existence, imagined as a vast expanse of water that exists between life and afterlife. This is the abode of Lasirèn, La Baleine, Agwe, Simbi, Yemanja, Watra Mama, and all the water divinities of Africa and the African Atlantic. Their names are regularly invoked to strengthen the determination needed to endure the hardships and challenges of lives scattered and torn asunder by the avarice, arrogance, and brutality of those who would enslave others for their own benefit. The arts for African Atlantic gods and goddesses evoke complex emotions, hopes, and dreams as well as fears and nightmares. They may recall a sorrowful, troubled past, yet they offer hope and inspiration for a better future and the promise of an afterlife.


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3 comments to this article

  1. Anon

    on August 26, 2015 at 5:28 am - Reply

    Respect for this series met. I’ve been fascinated with Yemaya/Yemoja/Mami Wata for a while, even did a project on the water spirit in college.

    I will def be reading these posts and look forward to the comments from Obara and the others who are clued up and rolling with the ancestors.


  2. Siafu Obbatala

    on August 30, 2015 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    Personally, My favorite orisha is Obatala. Mami Wata/Yemanja is his favorite child. “Obatala (known as Obatalá in Latin America) is an Orisha. He is the Sky Father and the creator of human bodies, which were brought to life by Olorun’s breath. Obatala is the father of all Orishas and also the owner of all ori. Any Orisha may claim an individual, but until that individual is initiated into the priesthood of that Orisha, Obatala still owns that head. Obatala’s wife is Yembo (known as Yemú in Latin America).

    Obatala is Olorun’s second son. He is the one authorized by Olorun to create land over the water beneath the sky, and it is he who founds the first Yoruba city, Ife. Obatala is Olorun’s representative on earth and the shaper of human beings.

    In Candomblé, Obatalá has been syncretized with Our Lord of Bonfim and is the subject of a large syncretic religious celebration, the Festa do Bonfim, which takes place in January in the city of Salvador and includes the washing of the church steps with a special water, made with flowers. In Santería, Obatalá is syncretized with Our Lady of Mercy and Jesus Of Nazareth.


    “Children and Orishas” – Obbatala,

  3. EbonyLolita

    on October 17, 2015 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    Oya is my fav, but I have not been initiated nor have I consulted with a Godparent to begin this process. I am looking more towards African godparents. There are a lot of language barriers when I seek w/in the Latino community.

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